We had so much fun designing our imaginary Stealth Survival Horror game that I want to do it again. Here is my new idea: Space Trading Sim + FPS style RPG. Let me give you a Hollywood pitch for this one:
Freelancer (actually Elite/Frontier but no one remembers these games) meets Morrowind/Oblivion. How does that strike you? I think it could be loads of fun. The game would essentially consist of two different modes. Parts of the game would be played “on foot” from a first person perspective. This is how you would do most of your trading, acquire quests, purchase equipment, parts and/or new ships. Then there would be “ship” mode where you actually get to steer your one-person space freighter, explore, dogfight with pirates, mine asteroid fields and do all sorts of other crazy stuff.
Before you say that this sort of thing would be an impossibly complex project, let me explain my idea fully. I gave it some thought and you are right. Making something like this happen on a scale you have seen in Freelancer, or Darkstar One (not even mentioning good old Frontier) would indeed be virtually impossible. My idea is to scale the game back a bit in order to make it work. How do we do that? We borrow the premise from Firefly!
Instead of an immense universe to be explored, lets confine the game to a single solar system or a network of 2-3 solar systems connected by wormholes. These systems have few dozen inhabitable planets in total, twice as many small moons some of which have been terraformed (fully or partially) and some of which are used for mining. There are also bunch of space stations, and asteroid mining stations scattered all over the place.
Naturally you won’t have to make the whole planet surface accessible to exploration on foot. In fact that would be crazy. Good assumption to make would be that the player would only be allowed to explore the space port area, and adjacent locations. This can be easily explained through the game’s narrative. For example, the rich core worlds would be extremely paranoid and xenophobic (see Firefly again) and thus their space ports would work as closed, self sufficient ecosystems. Only citizens would be allowed to leave the area, and only after being subjected to thorough identity tests (DNA test, retina scan, etc). The player would be locked out.
On the other hand the Frontier planets would either be partially terraformed and have lethal atmosphere or simply be desolate. So even if the player managed to leave the space port, he would find himself in an endless dessert, steppes or even bare rocky plain.
Since we would only have a dozen or two of planets, we could design a unique space port for each of them. Available locations for exploration would be the docks, adjacent bazaar or trade district (depending on how “civilized” the planet claims to be), living areas (or hotels of offworlders), bars/taverns, and on major planets even some features like community parks, libraries, governmental buildings and etc. Same goes for major space stations, and large terraformed moons. Mining stations on the other hand could be tiny – perhaps even only few rooms, and occupied by 8-10 NPC’s each.
If you think about each planet/moon/station as of a Morrowind/Oblivion town you can easily see the scale of the project would be feasible here. Especially since you wouldn’t need to create walkable, interesting, scenic routes between these locations. They could exist in perfect isolation since all the travel would be done through space.
Since we are working with small scale universe I would not include any kind of hyperspace jump capability. In fact, I’d make traveling between planets semi-realistic in that it would take you weeks or months of relative in-game time to reach your destination. Of course you would be able to skip the boring travel parts by hitting the auto-pilot button which would either speed up time or instantly skip to the destination barring any random encounters with pirates an/or police patrols.
What usually kills me in most of the modern space sims is the fact you cannot actually land on your own or enter the planet’s atmosphere and fly around like it was possible in Frontier. I’d love to have this option in the game. Your planets could have nice, procedurally generated landscapes appropriate to the planet type and climate. It wouldn’t have to be anything special and/or complex. Just simple stuff like lakes, plains, forests, mountains and etc.. We would make the planets on a smaller scale so you wouldn’t actually have to generate millions of miles of landscape.
Some people would complain, but Freelancer got away with planets that were smaller than some of the space stations that orbited them so I don’t think this would be a problem. Besides, there would be nothing more rewarding than dropping down onto a planet, and circling the space port few times checking out the area before touching down.
You could restrict flying over the highly populated core worlds with many cities. State that it is illegal to do it, and send overwhelming forces against the player to discourage him. For example, say that these planets have long range ground defense lasers which are triggered long before you would be in range to shoot at them. So flying into the atmosphere of a core planet outside of designated airspace is suicide. The proper way to land on these planets would be to ask for landing permission, then switch on auto-pilot and wait.
Also, core planets could have thousands of cities but only some of them would contain space ports open for off-world traffic. Remember, the core is paranoid, xenophobic and downright hostile to outsiders. It adds character to the game, and it helps us to make the game smaller and less overwhelming to make.
Let’s say the player visits one of the less populated worlds. What would stop him from flying by the spaceport or the nearby city and blasting away at the buildings? I say, let them. Make some of them destructible for that very purpose (maybe even make them objectives for some quests). Just have bunch of SAM sites, defense lasers and police/military ships buzzing in the ari at each port making sure that such behavior doesn’t go un-punished. Also, attacking a space port, or civilian buildings from above would set the planet hostile to you so you would no longer land there, and their ground, and orbit defenses would attack you on sight. Any allied colonies would follow suit and also target you. The player would then have to switch to a new ship, and then purchase fake identity somewhere to get rid of his outlaw status.
I’d also have different factions like in Freelancer. Some of them may be hostile to you initially, but by taking certain quests you could become friendly with them. So if you would want to play a space pirate you could, and at some point you would be allowed to trade with other pirate groups and land on their stations and etc.
Because the game would have two distinct modes of play, it would offer much more varied assortment of missions and quests than the average space sim. There of course would be courier missions, escort missions, seek and destroy quests and etc. But you could also have traditional RPG stuff like assassinations, theft (corporate espionage), extortion, demolition and skirmish combat that would be done on foot.
The game is already getting complex as it is, but I’d love to also have an RPG element where you could actually upgrade your character. You would have set of skills, some of which would be useful on foot while others would help you while in your ship. For example, I’d definitely have something like the Mercentile and Speachcraft skills from Morrowind/Oblivion which would allow you to haggle over the price more effectively and/or charm the secrets out of various NPC’s.
I’d probably keep the combat simple and similar to what is done Morrowind/Oblivion though I’d cut it down. Since we are playing in distant future I’d probably completely remove melee, maybe with the exception of fist fighting (minimal damage – with a chance of knocking someone out, especially if attacking from stealth). I’d also stick with only few types of basic armor and weapons – some of which would be unique to specific planets. There would be some unique items with special bonuses to keep the player interested in exploring and taking quests.
I’d also make the game aware of what the character is wearing. I talked about this idea before at length. Essentially, expensive clothes would give you bonuses to mercentile and speachcraft and make NPC’s react more favorably towards you. Some exclusive establishments would even require you to wear a tuxedo to enter. Conversely, walking around in full combat armor with bunch of guns strapped to you would attract police attention and make people scared of you. Some secure areas would have metal detectors at the door, prohibiting you to enter in combat gear.
What do you think? Would you play a game like that? What would you change in the design above? What kind of features would you like to see in that game? Let’s bounce some ideas around!